02/11/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

Creating an Educational Internship Program (Without Overhauling It)

Contrary to popular belief, education isn't just something acquired in the classroom. When it comes to your internship program, providing your interns with a highly educational experience is a must. In fact, creating an educational environment within your internship program is one of the best ways to legally test whether you can provide an unpaid internship under the Fair Labor Standards Act internship program guidelines.

If you're unclear on the boundaries for instilling an educational nature in your internship program, you're not alone. Some of the most publicized perpetrators of this misunderstanding are Condé Nast, Bad Boy Entertainment, and Fox Searchlight Pictures. While these are just a few intern employers that have gained notoriety for their unwillingness to pay interns at least the federal minimum wage, these companies also failed to provide interns with an educational experience.

I want to make one thing clear: simply paying your interns -- something 36.9 percent of employers still don't do -- doesn't mean you can forgo providing an educationally rewarding experience. But it's completely possible to create an educational internship program at your company, and you might not even have to overhaul what you're already doing.

So, what exactly is an educational internship program?
What may seem educational to some employers certainly isn't on par with what others are doing. Education is quite a subjective topic, so a good rule of thumb to use when considering your internship program is to ask whether it acts as an extension of the classroom.

Transforming your internship program into something more educationally valuable means spending time on intern training and skill growth. At InternMatch, we see many employers dedicating at least one hour a week to teaching interns new skills. These range from soft skills like networking and general business etiquette to software training. Intern employers with a focus on education often host internal networking sessions for interns to meet with other members of the office and learn in an informal environment.

Ensure your intern projects follow suit
What types of projects and assignments do your interns currently undertake? If these projects aren't giving interns hands-on experience within your company and industry, as well as helping to improve the skills they learned in the classroom, it's time for a change. Rather than focusing on having your interns handle menial tasks around the office or small projects "here and there," plan for them to undertake meaningful projects varying in size and scope of experience.

Some immersive educational tasks to consider for your internship program would be allowing your interns to participate in one large semester-long project on their own. This may mean effectively crafting a social media campaign for your company or a client. Another idea is to place your interns in teams (if you have more than a handful), have them undertake a project together, and present it to executive staff. Not only will your interns gain experience and portfolio pieces, they'll also boost their soft skills in terms of presenting and managing expectations and deadlines.

Remember that intern supervisors matter
Regular feedback and guidance are essential traits of an educational internship program. Interns are still learning, so they're bound to have lots of questions and concerns. Your interns will be unable to effectively execute projects and tasks if they receive little to no guidance. It's important to remember that managing even one intern can take a lot of time and care.

Intern supervisors should also be providing mentorship opportunities within an educational internship program. Developing a formal mentorship program for interns and employees at your company will accelerate your intern's learning curve and ensure things run smoothly.

Add training to the regularly scheduled programming
Your educational internship program needs a strong dose of training opportunities. Consider the skills you want to teach all of your interns during their semester with you, and create a workshop/training schedule to ensure you're making training a regular part of the program. The best part about using a regular training schedule is that it will sync up with exactly how you want the intern to progress during their time at your company.

For example, during week one of your training schedule, teach your interns how to be successful in the office. This includes showing them strategies on how to ask for help and standard processes around the office. During week two, teach tactical skills. For social media or communication interns, this may mean teaching interns how to write effective blog headlines and other great copy.

Creating an educational internship program doesn't necessarily mean a complete overhaul is in order. Find small ways to boost the educational nature of everything your interns encounter during their time with you.

How do you ensure your interns are gaining an educational experience?